Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

You’ve eaten…maybe prayed…definitely loved. Now it’s time to get magical in some very practical ways.

Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015. Print.

Genre: nonfiction, creative inspiration

Summary: The sage and witty writer who brought you the worldwide bestseller, The Misadventures of a Messed-up Woman Traveling Through Three Countries in Three Months, All to Find the True Source of Joy (alternately and succinctly titled Eat, Pray, Love) returns to tell creative types and would-be creative types: own your soul and go make something today!

Critique: I will often recommend this as a craft book to writers, even though it does not tell them how to better hone the craft of writing. It will, however, help them craft a better soul more suited to the lifelong pursuit of writing!

While each “chapter” of this text is only a paragraph or three, the book feels densely packed with fresh perspectives on the value of and necessity for living creatively. For instance, Gilbert notes that as a species, humans took up art at least 40,000 years ago. Surprisingly, we only bothered with agriculture about 10,000 years ago. That means we found it more important to make attractive, superfluous items than to reliably feed ourselves!

Gilbert gives everyone a permission slip to be creative and express themselves. And I mean that literally and figuratively. She reminds readers to get off the tightrope slung between “I suck” and “I am greatest.” Stand firmer on the grounds of, “I am here.” That’s it. Neither bad, nor good. Just here. And while here, entitled to your own voice and vision.

She also surmises that if you feel the urge to create, but too often ignore it, then you’ll likely spend your time destroying something. A bank account, a relationship, or maybe your own self-esteem.

Just as in Eat, Pray, Love, readers will find here Gilbert’s signature style, which never strays far from nakedly honest, graciously humble, and fantastically witty. Her voice — whether on the page or recorded for audiobooks — is reassuring, kind, and invigorating. It’s a voice so comforting I’ve started using it whenever my negative, snitty inner critic begins to gabble on about what a joke I am. Before that crank gets on a roll, I remind myself that my inner critic is NOT my inner editor. My inner editor loves my work and it tells me (in Liz Gilbert’s charming, sparkling voice) how much it wants me to succeed!

So, is there a project you’re dodging? A dream you’ve harbored but never sailed on open waters? Maybe it’s time to stop making excuses and start making big magic.

Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg

If you often yearn for 26-hour days — a bit more time to get done all that life requires and maybe, JUST MAYBE, a wink of sleep — this book is definitely for you!

Duhigg, Charles. Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (self-help-ish sans the tearful journal exercises)

Summary: Duhigg maps out the strategies successful people and industries use to attain utmost productivity. Defined here, productivity is ” the name we give our attempts to [best use] our energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort.” In other words, Duhigg sets out to teach you how to succeed with less stress and struggle.

Critique: Author of the bestselling The Power of Habit (2012), Duhigg returns to deliver a fresh set of neurological schematics underscoring how to get the most optimal performances out of our brains. As always, he does a masterful job weaving technical exposition and compelling scenes involving the many people he profiled and interviewed while researching the book.

For example, you may be right in the middle of a based-on-true-events plane crash scene when Duhigg hits the pause button and delivers some bit of crucial data on the brain in times of extreme stress. The suspense mounts and just when you think you can’t take it, he hits play and resumes the gripping drama. The result: reading this book is lot like watching The Big Short.

Students studying how to compose creative nonfiction would do well to study Duhigg’s techniques.

Besides a good craft study, Duhigg’s latest book outlines some unconventional approaches to productivity all based on the latest behavioral and neuroscience research. Evidently, there IS a wrong way and a right way to make a to-do list. Most of us do it the wrong way, resulting in scads of wasted time, incomplete projects and missed deadlines–not to mention the scree of eroded self-confidence. Also, if you want to get through that nebulous inbox of unanswered emails, you’ll have to learn to reply like a U.S. Marine. Instead of setting the usual SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timelined), set stretch goals. Finally, once you understand why fear is an intrinsic part of innovating new ideas, you can harness it to intensify your creativity and hit your deadlines and benchmarks. In other words, if you’re a writer, you’ll want this book on your shelf.

 

Chef’s Table (hint: look under the table)

chefs-tableChef’s Table. Produced by David Gelb, Andrew Fried, et al. Boardwalk Pictures, City Room Creative, FINCH, 2015.

Genre: docuseries (cooking…and so much more)

Summary:The promoters and producers would have you believe that every episode of Chef’s Table profiles one of the world’s leading chefs for 45-55 minutes accompanied with pleasurably slow, sensuous, sumptuous shots of gourmet cuisine. And on the surface (dare I say, on the tabletop), that is entirely true. The other crucial aspect featured in every show exists under that surface and feeds a powerful extension of creation, much as nitrogen, roots, humus, and earthworms feed the organic bounty of the globe!

Critique: This show boasts a quiver of assets. Its tone is elegant, backed by sexy food montages soundtracked with classical music. Its cast of top chefs truly are geniuses and savants. Its topics are sophisticated at intelligent: ethical food supply, cultural restoration through food diplomacy, food as interpretive music, dance, even fairy tale! In short, this is not a show for folks who want to just “Netflix and chill.” It is too compelling to just be background ambiance.

nature-as-artist

“Nature as an artist-2” by zeeveez.

Also, I’d wager there are few amorous partners out there brash enough to compete with the sinful delectables served up on the show!

The core ingredient that really sizzles across every episode — and the reason why I am featuring it in the place of a recommended book — is its subtext. That which is happening under the tablecloth.

Writing students would do well to study how most of the episodes talk on the blatant surface about one thing, while showing, hinting at, suggesting, enlightening another message deeper down. Many budding writers have a hard time with subtext. They struggle to notice it, let alone reproduce it. But subtext is essential to good storytelling because it invites the reader (or viewer) to participate with the text, rather than passively witness.

In a quickndirty example of subtext, I always point to the glorious scene in The Incredibles (2004), when the AI monster ball is shredding through the city. Frozone is ready for action, opens the secret compartment where he keeps his super suit only to find it missing….


On the surface, the conversation that follows between Frozone and his wife is all about the suit’s location, but underneath that, this couple is really squabbling over the power dynamic of their relationship. Who’s the boss, or who wears the (super) pants? That element is made clear in the subtext, or in what is not being openly said. Frozone does NOT say: Honey, you are always undermining me. You never take my job as a super hero seriously.

Nonetheless, that is exactly what gets communicated to viewers who are actively piecing together these details.

So what is Chef’s Table putting in its subtext? The treacherous, arduous, daunting path of the artist or creator. The process by which one learns to trust in his or her own creative spark and allows it to burn wild. The armor one puts on to protect the feral soul from the slings and arrows of doubters and skeptics.

broken-window

“Soul” by Marcell Schwarz

It quietly illustrates how creators must apprentice to a master, copy technique until skills are perfected and ingrained, and finally break free from instruction in order to forge what is new, unique, and true to the self. And most importantly, the subtext illuminates how to attain resiliency — that seemingly magical ability to weather downturns, to grin and bear it, to turn failure into success.

((Now, after you’ve watched a few episodes, you may say, “Hey, these elements can’t be subtext because the chef’s are talking about them in their interview narratives.” I will concede that the chef’s are uttering these insights and truths; however, the directors have arranged these statements to take a backseat to the stunning food cotillions and the shimmering musical fanfares. Thus, the “message” of the show is embedded. It is arranged underneath its more primary elements. And, I further argue these themes are subtext because so many other reviews completely overlooked them and knocked the show for lacking anything deeper and being little more than foodie porn.))

Finally, I recommend this show not only to budding writers in need of a subtext booster shot, but also to writers and creators going through a moment of crisis with their work. Those who have suffered a dent in self-confidence and ability. I give you permission: take a night off to “Netflix and fulfill.” Trust me when I say you’ll hunger for more than food.

Get Lost: A Story for Writers Who Haven’t Found Their Way

When a girl goes camping all by herself, as I did this past weekend, she is bound to undergo at least one significant spiritual transformation, or discover at least one profound truth about her inner self.

I will share with you one of the profundities I discovered—maybe the greatest one: I do not own a keychain bottle opener.

Whenever I have gone camping in the past and wanted to open a beer, I grabbed my darling’s keys and k’chih! I drove three hours to Utah, picked my campsite, assembled my lunch, and pulled the beer out of the cooler before I realized I could not open it.

Woman with bottle

Image from beernexus.com.

Never fear! I did not let this minor packing snafu stop me from enjoying that beer! A beer bought specifically to celebrate my first time camping all alone.

Lunch consumed and beer guzzled, I set about to camp. I erected the tent. Chopped firewood. I even managed to attach the propane tank to the cooking stove without blowing anything up! I was so jazzed that I took off the next day for a hike!

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Image my own.

The trail I selected roved up and down through a couple wind- and water-carved canyons. The tops of the canyons were deserts, while their crevices frilled with miniature forests. Because this was a National Park (specifically Canyonlands), the trail was marked at intervals with stacked rock formations, or cairns. I roved, drunk on the sights of red sandstone cliffs topped with white limestone scallops. I was giddy from all my outdoorsy prowess, despite all the horrific scenarios I expected (and imagined in gory detail) would befall me. Punishment for attempting something so daunting all on my own. But there I was, creative problem-solver and fearless explorer, confidently striding through the rugged wilderness, negotiating a strenuous trail. Alone. Independent. Powerful. Unstoppable!

The brief winter afternoon was well spent by the time I about-faced on the trail and started the trek back to my car. I maneuvered the naturally terraced rock steps leading to the bottom of a canyon. I gave a quick glance to the positions of the cairns ahead, and then returned my focus to my feet. I was especially good at tripping in shoes—no doubt because most of my agility training happens barefoot in the Aikido dojo. My feet do not know how to keep me alive with shoes on.

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Image my own.

Eventually, I began to notice all the shattered bits of erosion littering every nook and cranny of the canyon. I was struck by how the cliffs looked so majestic from a distance, but up close were all destruction and crumble. These massive geological castles were actually has beens. Ruins.

That notion resonated deep. I could look so confident, so proficient to my friends, my family, even to strangers who stood at a distance. But if they got too close, they would no doubt see just how broken and crumbled I was. Controlling my small universe and all the people in it was how I had formerly kept everyone at an appropriate distance, away from all my debris. I wanted—needed—to keep it all hidden from view.

Not so for these mountains. Not so for all these crumbling cliffs and ridges. They displayed their messes, their sloped mounds of talus, like the creased and pleated skirts of a ball gown. And why not? What were those talus piles and those shards of rubble under my feet but the steady signs of progress. Change. Transformation.

What had those shards and granules been before they were part of mountains? Some might have been magma. Some might have been pyroclasts, or flying rocks. Some were undoubtedly beach sand, for that is what the Needles of Canyonlands are: ancient, compacted, eroding spires of a beach. And what were those sands before that? Maybe some hard candy the ocean sucked on gummed until it found what was truly sweetest at the core, and thus spat the sugary sands ashore. And now that they were rocks and granules, they would travel who knew where in the world, carried in water, wind, human pocket, or animal dander. No matter where they went, they would inevitably keep turning into something else.

How wonderful be in a constant state of flux. Slow, yes—but continual. Almost imperceptible, yes—but happening nonetheless.

“I am changing!” they shout. “Watch me, if you dare!”

No wonder the mountains and canyons put their metamorphosis on display. Change was remarkable.

I was so titillated in that moment that I almost shouted in chorus with the canyons, cliffs, and mountains: I, too, am changing! I am eroding and growing at the same time! I am thirty five and in therapy (for the first time) dealing with my codependency issues (also for the first time because I never realized I had a problem).

But here I was, a person addicted to other people—addicted to caretaking others while neglecting myself—spending time alone in the wilderness. Caring for myself. Keeping myself warm, fed, and hydrated. Creatively solving my own problems (who needs a bottle opener, anyway)! The realization that my abilities were numerous paired up with the notion that my imperfect body was a gorgeous container for my imperfect, yet beautiful, soul. This epiphany shackled my feet in place, and for a long time all I could do was stand at the bottom of a canyon next to pipsqueak stream, and point my teary face up to the sun.

When I was ready to resume my hike, I could not locate a single cairn in any direction. They were gone.

The instant you realize you are lost, a hot, heavy pressure blankets the back of your neck. You can no longer hear anything outside your own skin. The world sort of tilts. No, not tilts. It transposes in an instant, like a picture you’re editing into Photoshop. One-click flip! What was left becomes right and what was down becomes up.

The inner compass of my body whooshed around and I become a snow globe of directions.

Let’s see. I had been walking north because the sun was on my left. To the west. Right? West is left on a map? But had the sun really been on my left or had it been on my right? I couldn’t really remember. Now it was dead ahead. No matter. I knew that the trailhead where my car was parked was to the…north. No—east! It had to be east. Right? I mean left. I mean…shit!

I tried backtracking—or at least meandering in the direction I was pretty sure was backwards. No bushes, no cascading rock stairways looked at all familiar, memorable, or remarkable.

I fumed. How could I let this happen? How could I, at my age, get lost? And so quickly, too!

Written out, it seems as though I plunged headlong contemplating those shattered rocks for hours, but really, it was no more than a minute or two.

compassBut that was enough time. In fact, that’s all the time it takes to lose your way in your own life. You think you know where you’re headed. You think you see the way all set out and marked. You get cozy. You get distracted. And then the next thing you know, the cairns and waymarkers have vanished. You.are.lost.

Lost. Off track. Misplaced. Displaced. Off course. That summed up the entirety of 2015 for me. I thought I knew where my life was going. I thought I knew a few of the things coming next. Marriage. Honeymoon. Celebration. The holidays. A new year. A new me. The little cairns were all there. All plotted on my calendar, getting ever closer.

And then, I got cozy. I got distracted with a new job that paid little and fed lots to my addiction to others. I over-invested. I let my writing wither. I left my beloved partner to wither, too. And when I finally looked up, everything my life had been was gone. Everything I had had. Had enjoyed. Had expected. Had taken for granted. Had known. Had loved.

Talus. That was all I had left. How fitting that I was now blindly roving between walls of talus.

The thicket of bushes before me abruptly shook hard, all rustle and fuss. I jumped back, all defense and gasp. Three deer, all does, trotted out of that thicket and into a clearing where they could watch me with their glistening black marble eyes. Then, before I would whisper, “Hello,” they bounded away, light as packing peanuts on narrow hooves that thudded heavy has jackhammers. I felt their departure more than I heard it.

For a moment, I stood dumb. Then I giggled.

“Wow!” I confessed to the canyon’s wind-carved ear arches. And to think, I would not have seen those lovely animals had I not wandered off the trail. Had I not gotten lost…

cairnThe irony made me chuckle, but the notion swiftly evolved. What if I was never “off track”? What if my life—any life, for that matter—had but one track it could follow? No matter what forks and branches arose, no matter what choices were made, the way I was going was the way my life needed to go. I could relinquish any regrets for the roads I chose not to travel in the past. Those paths I did not pursue. What were they but ghosts? And I could release any frustration surrounding my current trajectory because to get cantankerous with my present position was to yearn for forks, branches, and options that had not yet come my way. The specters of future roads not yet built.

How much of my life had I spent pining for those ghosts and specters? How much had I been missing in my present reality—what gifts and splendors like those deer—when I yearned for where I was not and where I could not be?

And where else could I be but right here? Right now. And if I was always right here right now, then maybe I was always precisely where I needed to be. Always on track. Always changing. Eroding. Rebuilding. Transforming. Never lost.

I stared at the deer tracks embroidered in the ribbons of sand zippered with a slender stream. The tracks curved over the strange grid of hiking boot tread. Not the tread of my hiking boots, but someone else’s. Many someones! The boot prints traveled several crooked yards, then disappeared where the sand gave way to the rocky carpet of the canyon floor. Also precisely where a cairn sat sun tanning. Not far off was another. Another. And another.

The way.

Had it been there all along? Or had it only appeared when I was ready to see it?

I suspect the answer to either question is yes.

The Trickster’s Hat by Nick Bantock

bantock_tricksterBantock, Nick. The Trickster’s Hat: A Mischievous Apprenticeship in Creativity. New York: Perigee, 2014. Print.

Genre: Writer’s/Artist’s craft book

Summary: A little book brimming over with exercises to get you thinking, working, and creating! The author also helps you pinpoint when and where your self doubt is likely to creep in, how to curb it, and maybe abandon it altogether! I recently featured this book in my post Stoke the Soul Fires!

Critique: Bantock wisely acknowledges that all Creatives procrastinate. But rather than scold, he helps us see how we can turn our thumb-twiddling into powerful creative energy. Having trouble putting something down on the blank page or canvass? Try doing a timed doodle. Draw a 1″ by 1″ box, and in one minute, see how many animals you can draw in that box. Stick figures are fine. Then in another minute, draw that same box, minus one side. Now see how many animals you can draw ESCAPING that box in one minute! Super challenging, and super immersive! Writing after this exercise always feels jazzed and electric!

Other exercises include going outside to  build a village out of found objects or items, creating your own words and definitions, splicing two paragraphs from two different books and revising an all-new beautiful bit of prose!

 

Try any or all of Bantock’s wacky exercises and do so without the guilt of, “but I’m not writing.” The key is you are playing and playtime is a powerful source of creative power!